Secondary LCES and Other Concerns

  • Liquor: Recognize and report problematic alcoholism.  
  • Collisions: Cars and aircraft kill more forestry technicians than burnovers.  
  • Equality: Base all delegation on ability, or willingness to be a trainee, within a fair rotation.
  • Selflessness: It is not my squad. It is our squad.  

A Basis for the Notion

[The power was out in our 1985 trailer, listed in fair/poor condition on our housing agreement, so the first draft was penned by candlelight]…Our duty station is almost at the end of the power line, and the canyons funnel storm winds. There is mold in our ducts, scattered signs of rodents, and occasional leaks in our plumbing or ceiling. But at least we have housing, our own rooms even. That was a first during my seventh season last year.  

The West changes. I fear that, even working what is deemed a necessary job–at least, according to the CDC's definition three years ago–it will be increasingly difficult for us to afford real estate here. The agencies certainly feel this pressure; our lack of government housing seems to be a common post-briefing discussion topic with adjoining resources. My mother said she will write to her senator…I digress.  

I would define our job as necessary, but in a more nuanced way than merely fighting fire. Our duty station is close to some of the first managed Wilderness fires of the 1970s, although the practice is no longer relegated to the most rural areas. Gone are the days of the 10 AM policy and a noticeable shift has occurred. True, there are still times when one wants to login to WFDSS (the Wildland Fire Decision Support System) to find management action points from a prior incident management team, because a new division wants to go direct in snag-ridden lodgepole pine with questionable anchor points/safety zones. There is usually about one assignment per year when the ICS team waffles for days between letting it burn and putting it out. But, it is also true that even hotshots do their fair share of monitoring fire these days, aka staging with a radio on. Gone are the days of immediately cutting line and regularly proceeding through the night. So, no…rarely do we do heroic, necessary deeds, at least from the immediate perspective of saving a life. That would be urban fire/EMS, for whom many of us have a deep respect (even if we out-hike them).  

So how are we necessary, then–besides protecting homes in small, mostly rural, communities, or using FEMA money to clear trails [because fire is overfunded relative to trails crews–a fact which has bothered me since my rookie season], or playing Rummy 500 while waiting to burn out around a historic CCC cabin? We mistakenly go direct on let-burns, which should be allowed to perform their ecological role, because we have a preference for action, for hiking, for “pulling cord” (running saw) and digging line, for impressing another crew or overhead figure. In our future, this energy, this willingness to have “type two fun” together–that is, fun which is only fun afterwards–will hopefully be channeled into increased prescribed fire funding and practice. Hopefully, prescribed fire will be recognized for its inherent risks, too, reflected as hazard pay. I have watched a crewmate backwards somersault while straddle crossing a large downed log on a steep slope, dropping the saw in the process, on prescribed fire. I have burned green patches far from a fire line, with fire below, on prescribed fire. At least public perception is changing: once, dragging torch was considered arson in areas of the West. Now, it comes with signatures and, to those informed, it is a legal and necessary task.  

Our shift to more widespread prescribed and natural fire in the West was based on three things: money, ecology, and tragedy. The latter half of the 20th century had relatively benign fire years (1988 being an exception - although it marked the first major national media coverage of the ecological role of fire, with a Time magazine article). But by the end of the 1990s, and certainly by 2010, the airshows required to corral megafires became too expensive, the wildland-urban interface too weaving. Most importantly, however, firefighter safety became paramount. In Between Two Fires, Stephen J. Pyne marks the Storm King, mislabeled South Canyon, Fire of 1994 as the key turning point towards fire management over full suppression. Having visited the site, I had two thoughts: the first, which rattled me, was how close the markers were to the ridgeline and (relative) safety (the escape route at Storm King is treacherous, featuring some fourth class moves). The second was that, upon first glimpse of the canyon, a modern technician immediately thinks “big box,” a strategy where we back off to roads and ridges and either let the fire burn, or light backfires to corral it. In perhaps too binary a way, I think about the sacrifices of the Storm King 14 when taking observational data on fires we now let burn. I think about their markers, and while their lives are irreplaceable, I hope wildlife, flora, and fungi have benefited in those acres we have deemed unsafe for engagement since 1994. The 2022 Staff Ride was a truly humbling experience, and I am grateful to those who organized it…especially the survivors, who were open to any question.  

Tragedy fires are turning points for us. A lot of us have been in the game for a while now, but we still recall our S-130/190 class. The “10 and 18” standard firefighting orders/watchout situations were based on several fires, principal of which were the Rattlesnake and Inaja incidents. This discussion, however, builds upon LCES and Other Thoughts, written by Paul Gleason, superintendent of Zig Zag IHC, in 1991. It was penned as a result of the Dude Fire of 1990, and is now included in most briefings, whether from an IC5 trainee or branch director of a national incident management team. To all rookies: never should you feel inferior for clarifying LCES before engaging. If anything, you are helping your leaders focus through the multitudes of crew needs they mentally carry. I was lightly hazed, in good taste, while a “fill” on a ‘shot crew a few years back, but never for asking about LCES.  

Through LCES, Paul Gleason gives each of us individual freedom to speak up on safety. While we share responsibility for it–communication is the second tenet–it should serve as a reminder that, if you feel uncomfortable with an assignment as an individual, use LCES to fortify your position. New firefighters will learn when LCES is most critical based on fire behavior, but beforehand, experienced team members should recall the days before they had mental slides and explain. Not only does this build empathy for rookies, it may help to avoid complacency.  

Defining Secondary LCES

The following four terms follow the spirit of individual safety, and LCES was selected because technicians of all experience levels know the acronym. It is meant to supplement, certainly not supplant, the original definition. I have thought of it as “secondary” LCES, or “social” LCES. It may not match your Secondary LCES, if you were to think of four words which are meaningful to you. That is fine. But I think it is important for us to focus not only on our physical safety, but our psychological safety as well in this profession. Top-down protocols “from Washington” may impact our pursuit, but we should focus on the well-being of our crew, our district, first. Secondary LCES is about our social resiliency - what is your definition?  

Liquor: Recognize and report problematic alcoholism. 

Regarding this elephant in the room, firefighting is no different than other professions. Yet it may affect us more due to our communal housing situations, at times stressful work environment, and hours spent together. Many can safely and responsibly partake in beverages at a pre- or post-season social, or on RON after a particularly taxing assignment. These evenings can serve to strengthen crew bonds, to get to know one another’s histories, families, hobbies, and preferences. Even small preferences, like who prefers the hot cashews in MREs, can make a difference on Day 12.  

This advice, however, does not refer to social drinking. It refers to problematic alcoholism. The blanket ban of alcoholic beverages in agency shared housing a few years back missed this nuance - many of us agree that the rule should have been assessed on a case-by-case basis, no pun intended. Liquor in secondary LCES refers to repeated bouts of unreliability, unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances, even drinking on the job. Be a lookout for liquor: if a coworker makes you feel uncomfortable, speak up. If he or she is your supervisor, bump it up the chain. This requires some tact, but nothing worthwhile lacks tact. I have experienced an employee receiving two or three chances by each of several supervisors. The process would have been faster if the top rung knew first. Nothing against the supervisors; alcoholism is a slippery ailment, and one may feel for the affected employee. While the physical nature of this job makes some of us want to crack a beer after a good “refurb” of the trucks and tools on the final day of an assignment, dealing with a true alcoholic was a first for most of us.  

Additionally, our agencies need to start firing alcoholics who show no signs of improvement, not allowing them to resign, even if the former requires more paperwork. They should not be working around the crew when completing EAP, nor should they receive overtime. When I learned a truly delinquent employee from last season is back with the agency in a different region this summer, it gave me pause.

Collisions: Cars and aircraft kill more forestry technicians than burnovers.  

One way to convince an ornery fleet manager of the merits of 10-ply tires, or at least tires with halfway decent tread, is to remind them that the flak they may receive for going over budget pales in comparison with the guilt and audits incurred after a vehicle rollover. That said, we share the responsibility. You will be driving a vehicle with sons and daughters in it. They may also be sisters, brothers, partners, mothers, or fathers. Their safety relies on your lack of distraction, your heightened alertness. True, you will be incurring about the same level of risk as any American who drives even modest commuter miles, although perhaps with less sleep, but I have heard it said…nothing is worth getting hurt at work.

Additionally, do what you can to ease the tasks of our pilots, to alleviate their inherent risks. Some initial attacks are actually less time-consuming to hike to versus fly to due to shuttling, and it builds grit on the crew. Pack lightly for sling missions, if they are required at all. I grow suspect while watching ships freelance entire divisions, and wonder if ICS teams are stalling until a wetting rain or Day 14. We waste thousands of dollars and place pilots at risk (some enjoy the challenge, although that is a different discussion) to “keep it in check,” because we fear the ship will be moved to a higher-priority incident. This is preposterous. The decision should be made as early as possible to let it burn or put it out. If they dangle, we should dig.

Equality: Base all delegation on ability, or willingness to be a trainee, within a fair rotation.  

Work ethic, efficiency from experience, and a calm demeanor in times of stress are the only true measures of desirability in this job. It can be difficult to confront people who prefer certain groups of people to others, especially if they are supervisors. Start by not faux-laughing at their jokes. If you are repeatedly not selected for a task you would have liked to do and feel ready to perform, ask why. A good leader will provide a reasonable answer. Additionally, if you witness inappropriate delegation but are not the target, you have a responsibility to defend crew culture. Plan to either confront the person, or report the behavior up the chain.

While it is ironic coming from a technician, I dislike the prefix “micro-,” feeling it too technical. [The term “micronav,” especially, although perhaps this term has become antiquated –I am ashamed to admit that I view the blue dot in Avenza, or little arrow thing in Arc Field Maps, as part of my identity now.] That said, microaggressions are valid concerns. Simple changes help all feel rightfully valued in the workplace. Instead of saying “guys” on the radio, say “folks,” or “people.”

Selflessness: It is not my squad. It is our squad.  

I recall watching a Lessons Learned video a few years ago in which an engine captain referred to a seasonal employee as “my firefighter.” That is unacceptable. Replace “my firefighter” with the person’s name. If anything, the captain could be referred to as “my captain,” because it suggests that the leader is owned by team members. Without their success, health, and livelihood, his or her job entirely lacks meaning. I do not mean to single out this particular engine; I still observe the “old-school” mentality occasionally, although it is being replaced with a better, more open, form of leadership. The former style fails due to a divide between seasonal and permanent employees. Our new leadership culture is stronger because all are encouraged, in the right circumstances, to contribute ideas. This can provide efficient workflow–when discussions are succinct, and leaders are not stubborn.

Replace “my” with “our.” I realize this is a small argument over semantics, over changing the way we speak. But it speaks magnitudes, and I have witnessed its positive effect on crew culture.

Concluding Thoughts

One thought from the introduction of Pyne’s Fire: A Brief History has rattled around in my hard hat over the years, along with a taped-in flight weight and quote from Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Besides gathering food, building shelters, crafting clothing, hunting, and making tools - all of which may be labeled “logistics” in ICS - fire management was perhaps our first job. That is powerful. When someone picks up the drip torch for the first time, I remind them that they are doing the oldest job. Lighting fire, or steering fire when nature allows, connects us to the earliest H. sapiens. It is and should be exciting. Fire is what it means to be human, and our times of greatest shared stress are our times of greatest bonding.